50 years ago, on a day that would come to be known as ‘Bloody Sunday,’ thousands marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma, Alabama to the capital city of Montgomery, Alabama. They marched for African Americans’ rights – specifically the right to vote, which had been denied to them by a segregationist system since shortly after slavery ended. Many marchers were beaten severely by state troopers. But they kept marching.
A few months after the march, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which was designed to eliminate legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from voting.
In recent years, key elements of the Voting Rights Act have been dismantled by the United States Supreme Court and a series of high profile deaths of young African American men at the hands of white people and, more specifically, white police officers, have made it clear that some collective soul searching is in order. Below are suggested books that are chosen not to confront or accuse, but to help the soul searching process.
Waking Up White by Debby Irving is a remarkable and, at times, emotionally searing look at one White woman’s struggle to understand racism. It is part memoir and part guide to changing how we think about race that Irving devised during her years-long struggle. A struggle in which she discovered the depths of her own racism. The book is a plea for understanding the roots of racism in all Americans and accepting that we are all racist to some degree. It is a plea for not judging oneself for that racism but, rather, taking steps to change it.
In the current atmosphere of distrust and claims of “I’m not a racist” by those who perpetuate racist policies and individual acts, it seems imperative that we take a step back and examine whether any American isn’t a racist. A country that was built on the system of slavery and continues to believe the myths that were created to support that system will, necessarily, produce people who are racist. It seems highly improbable that any raised in America are unscathed by prejudice and racism. Perhaps an acceptance of the fact of our own racism is the first step toward changing it. Waking up White is one of the most important books on race in recent memory. If you’re reading this and thinking “But I’m not a racist, I don’t need this book,” stop. Yes you are and yes you do. We all do. If that sounds like a challenge, then…it is. Read the book and see if your thinking about race and about yourself changes.
The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter tells a story that has been overlooked in many books on race and American history. The eminent historian tells the 2,000 year old story of the invention of race and of how the artificial human conception of race has pervaded all human-created systems. It illuminates the ways in which whiteness has been rewarded and in which anything associated with people of color has been denigrated. It is rare to find a book on history that focuses on race and The History of White people is an important contribution. It forcefully reminds us that the very idea of race is an illusion, and that how we think about race has changed over time.
It is hard to overstate the importance of The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. Named as one of the best books of 2012 by The New York Times and countless other reviewers, it sheds light on institutional racism in the form of the American penal system and the War on Drugs. It examines how the racial caste system of the 19th century, rather than having been eliminated, has been redesigned and is just as pernicious as ever. Alexander, an esteemed legal scholar, examines how the American justice system perpetuates racism – and how it reinforces the racial stereotypes that we are more comfortable with than we may like to admit. It is an impressive work of scholarship and a call to action and it will undoubtedly change the way you think of crime and race and how laws, prisons and policing are geared toward perpetuating stratification based on race.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin was published in 1963 and is as relevant today as it was when it was first published. It is the story of Baldwin’s childhood in Harlem and the story of what it means to be Black in America. Baldwin’s elegant and eloquent prose is used for a troubling examination of the consequences of racial injustice and presents the reader both a personal history and a more universal tale about the descendants of slaves in America. It is a masterpiece that presses all Americans to consider and then confront the legacy of racism that continues to haunt all of us, Black and White alike.
Resources for Finding Books on Race in American Life
Books for Understanding is a large resource for books on current events, mostly from university presses and small publishers. It has books listed by subject matter, by time, by geographical area and it is possible to search for very specific subjects like Race Relations in Arts and Culture, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and National Politics and Race. It also covers a wide variety of non-fiction topics related to history, culture, politics and human rights.
In February, 2015, The Village Voice newspaper’s Book Blog compiled a List of Lesser Known Books on Race. It includes 19th century classics and newly published books by New York City-based historians and sociologists.
The Southern Poverty Law Center publishes and promotes books on race, hate crimes and teaching tolerance. Titles also cover subjects like immigration, workers’ rights and intelligence reports on specific hate groups.
E.T. Carlton is a writer and book marketing consultant who covers literary and publishing news.